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How The Iranian Government Could Move Ahead After Outbreak Of Protests

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 7:53 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Leaders in Iran are giving competing views on the protests in the country which do continue, though in small numbers. Today Iran's supreme leader once again blamed the protests on U.S. and British efforts to create unrest. The country's president, though, has sounded sympathetic to the protesters and says they should be listened to. The big question is how much he will do for them. NPR's Peter Kenyon has more.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is sticking to the hard-line narrative - blaming outside enemies, especially President Trump, for protests that started over price hikes and local shortages. In a tweet, Khamenei referred to Trump as a very unstable man prone to, quote, "extreme and psychotic episodes."

President Hassan Rouhani, by contrast, sounded more understanding of the protesters' complaints even though Rouhani himself was a target of the protests. The president warned hard-liners against seeking to impose a certain lifestyle on younger generations. Economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani at Virginia Tech says it will be interesting to see if Rouhani backs up his rhetoric with real reforms in an effort to revive his economic agenda.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: Well, you know, the larger project of Rouhani to rationalize the economy, bring it closer to the global economy, bring far investment - all those are very good. And unfortunately, these protests have set that project back. So he needs to save that.

KENYON: Ali Vaez, Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, says Rouhani could try to seize the moment with an even bigger package of reforms both economic and political. He would then need to convince the supreme leader to back him in the face of hard-line opposition. Vaez says it would be a risky move but one that fits the moment.

ALI VAEZ: At this stage, it's not a question of a success or failure of Rouhani's presidency. The question is really the survival of the system because as we saw in these protests, the Iranian people are simply fed up with the deadlock and stagnation in the country's politics and economy.

KENYON: There are also smaller signals Rouhani could send, the kind of things chief executives do all over the world when times get tough. Economist Salehi-Isfahani says he might try shaking up the cabinet, something Rouhani didn't do after his re-election last year.

SALEHI-ISFAHANI: The central bank governor remained the same. The planning ministers remained the same. One thing he can do now is to signal change by bringing new people.

KENYON: Then there's the question of how far Rouhani is willing to go. Reformers backed both his election victories, but his own politics are far more cautious. He's never advocated radical changes to Iran's religious and military establishment. In fact, his own career path, which includes years serving on Iran's Supreme National Security Council, suggests that Rouhani's instincts are essentially conservative. Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St. Andrews University in Scotland, says experience has shown that not only is it hard for Rouhani to bring about change; there's good reason to question his desire to do so.

ALI ANSARI: We have to remember that Rouhani, at the end of the day, is a man coming from the sort of intelligence and security apparatus of the state. For most of his career, he was known as a conservative. And at times, he came across as quite hard-line conservative. So you know, this move yet again in the other direction - well, let's wait and see, but I'm certainly not going to hold my breath.

KENYON: One early signal may be what happens to those under arrest. Reliable figures are hard to come by. Estimates range from hundreds to nearly 4,000 according to one lawmaker. Whether they get released or put on trial may indicate who has the upper hand in Iran. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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